The history of the iconic Metal Blade Records in the words of the founder.
As Metal creeps towards it’s 50th anniversary it is not difficult to predict that we will see more and more books from industry veterans being published. Hot on the heels of the Noise Records book, Metal Blade in celebration of it’s 35th Anniversary as a record label, has decided to commemorate the event with a book! This is a great idea, a cool way to mark the occasion.
FOR THE SAKE OF HEAVINESS was written by label founder and head, Brian Slagel. He was assisted by Mark Eglington who is really making a name for himself in Metal publishing. (By coincidence, I reviewed the updated version of his James Hetfeild biography this month as well) This soft-cover book is nicely presented, easy to read, nice to look at with it’s black and red design. It features the ‘skull and crossbones’ logo which is important only because it explains one thing. Originally, Slagel wanted to name his company Skull and Crossbones and so the original idea lives on in one of several Metal Blade logos over the years. There is a really nice forward from Lars Ulrich and several interviews with MB alumni (Metallica, Bitch, Armoured Saint etc) are scattered through the book.
There are about eight pages of colour photos on glossy plates in the middle of the book, and playlists from Metal Blade staff. One thing that I felt was missing was a comprehensive Metal Blade discography. I was very disappointed that this was not included, a real lost opportunity. Over the years I have seen a few flawed versions floating around the internet but this was his one true chance to officially publish the perfect discography and it is lost.
As expected, Brian tells his story, not so much about himself but about the company. A number of people say he is quiet and modest, but I would have liked maybe a little more detail about him. I’m sure he chose to focus more on the company and the Metal but it would have been nice to get to know the man behind the magic…is he married, does he have kids? We know he likes hockey and comedy but those facts are not new to anyone who has ever read an interview with him. I read somewhere that he invested in a hockey team but that is not covered at all either, if it is true or not. For the most part he keeps it about the company, specifically the early years, which leads to one of my complaints.
Slagel makes a common yet unfortunate decision to dwell on the past and neglect the more current times. FOR THE SAKE OF HEAVINESS is heavily slanted towards 1980-1995. The last twenty years…over two full decades of the operation of the company are really glossed over. Most writers have heavy nostalgia for the early days and Slagel falls into that trap. The first 130 pages or covers the early days and in the last 40 pages he blows through about 1995 to 2017 like not much happened, just touching on a few highlights. The early days are covered in great detail, which is cool but I have read the story of Brian and Lars record shopping for NWOBHM albums so many times already. There wasn’t much new to me. All (most?) of the classic early stories are presented; when Lars met Slagel, when Lars got on Metal Massacre, when Slagel discovered Slayer etc. It is all laid out in loving detail.
Another sort of related criticism is that the book is a bit short and short on some details. He had plenty of room to talk about the company, but many things are left vague. Where is Metal Blade located now? How many people do they employ? What happened to the NY office? Tell us about Metal Blade Europe! How many Gold records did MB achieve over the years? All of these things that I thought might be interesting, from an industry perspective, are not elaborated on.
I’m not expecting him to reveal corporate secrets but we don’t have an idea of scale of his growth and success over the years. These things could have been celebrated more. He went from working out of his home house, to a small office to…what? That question is never answered. We know there is a warehouse …somewhere in California! Why not throw in a picture of the staff, or the offices or the warehouse? There could have been just a bit more but maybe he felt people don’t care about that stuff or wanted to protect the privacy of his people.
I should not complain and micro-analyze so much, FOR THE SAKE OF HEAVINESS Really is a fascinating book. One factor I liked was that he was not shy to talk about numbers, contracts, lawyers, and how much bands were paid. That shows bravery! Apparently, upon reading this book, David Mustaine of Megadeth wasn’t happy with Slagel talking about numbers in the early days. But, then again, Mustaine is always pissed off about something or other!
The detail about his distribution deals, the deals with Warner, advances, almost crashing and burning, overstock, surprise breakouts, the recording studios… all that cool stuff is extremely well documented in an entertaining fashion. What comes through is his love of music and his fearlessness to try new ideas and his willingness to let bands do whatever they want creatively. If you compare the recent Noise book, many, many ex-Noise artists are still unhappy with their former record label to this day, but it seems pretty much exclusively that anyone who was signed to MB had a positive experience with the company and Brian.
There was perhaps a little bit of denial on Slagels part, he says he always kind of kept it true in terms of who he signed, but in reality he really did sign a lot of horrendous crap that barely passes as Metal, over the years (especially over the 2000’s) trying to follow and capitalize on trends. However, his saving grace is that instead of totally dumping the classic Metal sound and just following the trends, he stayed with his core audience as well. More importantly he stayed true to himself. In my defense of this criticism, look at the labels roster today with 15 years ago. It is like night and day. Compare former signings of Evergreen Terrace, I Killed The Prom Queen and Dance Club Massacre to the bands that appear on the newly reactivated Metal Massacre series; killer young bands like Gatekeeper, Assassin’s Blade and Savage Master! It seems like Metal Blade is back on track and thankfully shedding most of the trend driven, Mall Metal genres (Metalcore, Nu-Metal, Deathcore, Djent etc) in favour of the types of the classic Metal styled bands that he loves and helped build his company.
I really enjoyed the ending monologue, Chapter 11 ‘Into The Future’ Brian has a realistic and cautiously optimistic projection for the future of the music industry and his company, which must evolve from bricks and mortar, warehouses, distribution and physical sales of hard copies, to the emerging streaming, digital on-line age. This is his livelihood of him and his staff! He is a very observant and clever analyst of the industry, not afraid to make (or admit) to mistakes but brave enough to keep trying…all for the love of Metal. I think that sincerity and single-mindedness of purpose has helped take Metal Blade to where it is today.
FOR THE SAKE OF HEAVINESS is a very entertaining and informative book. I know some industry books can be dry but not this one! Long live Metal Blade!